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Kidnapped twice, trainer Antonio Sano eyeing Kentucky Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Getting to what will be his first Kentucky Derby is on Antonio Sano’s mind almost constantly these days.

To say he took an unusual route would be an understatement.

Kidnapped on two separate occasions eight years ago in his native Venezuela – once for just a few hours, the other for 36 harrowing days, both times being freed after paying ransoms that he prefers not to disclose – the trainer and his family came to the United States to start their lives over in what they hoped to be a safer environment.

Fast forward eight years, and the 54-year-old Sano has a horse named Gunnevera, the favorite for Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and one that seems to already be among the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

“I had a little problem,” Sano said. “Now I have a big opportunity.”

A “little problem.” That’s what he calls being held twice against his will, inevitably wondering if he would ever see his family again. Now he’s a few weeks away from stepping onto the grounds of Churchill Downs for the first time, assuming Gunnevera – a winner in four of his last six starts, with three of those victories coming in graded stakes races – gets out of this weekend with no problems.

Long before Gunnevera ever saw the track, Sano knew there was something special.

“I bought the horse in September 2015,” Sano said. “I worked the horse three or four times and I said, `This is my horse.’ He’s good.”

Gunnevera already has enough points to assure himself of a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Still, Sano hopes he’s done enough to set Gunnevera up for a win in the Florida Derby – the race that Nyquist used to prep for his win at Churchill Downs a year ago.

“It’s very important, this moment,” Sano said.

These are very troubled times for Venezuela, and that isn’t new.

The U.S. Department of State has long warned Americans from going to Venezuela, saying “violent crime – including murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking – is endemic throughout the country.” Just this week, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled it can take over the powers of congress in a move that some said was a step toward installing a dictatorship in the South American nation.

Despite it all, Sano is proud of where he’s from – and what he’s come from.

“Venezuela is my history. America is my now,” Sano said. “At this moment, I’m working for my kids. My kids are what it’s all about for me. I’m working for their better.”

It’s no coincidence that Gunnevera’s ownership group includes two Venezuelans. Sano, of course, is Venezuelan. So it only makes sense that the jockey be Venezuelan as well – and that jockey is Javier Castellano, the winner of the last four Eclipse Awards as the top rider in the game.

Castellano called Sano to ask for the job. It doesn’t always work that way at Derby time.

“Maybe it’s meant to be,” said Castellano, who has ridden in 10 Kentucky Derbys. “Who knows?”

Sano doesn’t speak often about what he went through, and when he does he keeps certain details private. He said he’s still very leery of his family’s safety, and takes extra measures to help ensure their security in the U.S.

But Castellano knows the tale well, and raves about the person Sano is.

“It’s amazing,” Castellano said. “One thing you have to realize is to appreciate life. You help that kind of guy. He’s always helpful, very humble guy, always appreciates the opportunities people give to him. Hey, he’s lucky to be here. So you just enjoy the ride.”

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.